ADF International

Indian Christian vigil
commentary

India and its Anti-conversion laws

In spite of a rich tradition and legal framework supportive of freedom of conscience and the right to practice, profess, and promote the religion of one’s choice, religious minorities in India find themselves frequent victims of religiously motivated violence.

Every year there is an increase in incidents where Christians were targeted for their faith. The cases included physical assaults, threats, and intimidation. In some instances, women reported being sexually assaulted and threatened.

Observers note that violence against in Christians is often fueled by allegations of forcible conversions.

For instance, in Jharkhand, the Chief Minister claimed that ‘those involved “in conversions” of tribals were behind protests against the state government’s attempt to make an amendment’ in local land laws. The Government of Jharkhand in August 2017 published a full-page advertisement in many local newspapers misquoting Gandhi, denouncing Christian missionaries for their act of conversion and proselytizing among Adivasis and Dalits.

Subsequently, the state of Jharkhand became the seventh state to enact an anti-conversion law meant to regulate religious conversions in the state.

Anti-conversion laws are actively enforced in six more of India’s twenty-nine states: Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Madyha Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, and Himachal Pradesh. In all instances of enforcement, the laws are euphemistically titled ‘Freedom of Religion Act[s]’.

The Acts state that no person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religious faith to another by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means, nor shall any person abet any such conversion.

Moreover, failure to send a notice to or seek permission from the district magistrate before converting or participating in a conversion ceremony also renders one liable under the Acts. Conviction can result in fines and even imprisonment.

As can be expected, the effect of the Acts has been disturbing. Far from protecting religious freedom, reports from the various minority communities and human rights agencies reveal that these laws foster hostility.

In several states, prosecutions have been launched under the Freedom of Religion Acts against members of the minority Christian community. There have also been frequent attacks against the community by members of right-wing Hindu groups under the pretext of ‘forcible’ conversions.

Recent incidents in Madhya Pradesh are evidence of the blatant abuse of the anti-conversion laws. On three separate occasions, Christian children traveling in a train for a Christian camp were taken into custody at railway stations by the Railway Police on the grounds that the children were being ‘kidnapped to be converted.’

On May 22 and 23, 2017, nine Christians were arrested by the Railway Police when they were accompanying 71 Christian children for a summer Bible camp to Nagpur from Indore. On June 3, a Catholic nun and four girls were detained at the Satna railway station. On October 21, two Christians and seven children going for Bible Studies were detained and not allowed to meet the parents. In each of these incidents the Christians were charged on allegations of forcible conversions.

Despite the enactment of these acts in some states for over fifty years[1], there have been very few convictions. Still, cases are registered under the Acts almost every month. These cases bring a deep sense of insecurity among Christians who cannot freely practice their faith in the state where anti-conversions laws have been enacted.

Far from promoting or protecting religious freedom, India’s anti-conversion laws have undermined the religious freedom guaranteed under the Indian constitution, and international covenants to which India is a signatory.

Far from promoting or protecting religious freedom, India’s anti-conversion laws have undermined the religious freedom guaranteed under the Indian constitution, and international covenants to which India is a signatory.

Anti-conversion laws fail to achieve the very purpose for which they have been enacted. Instead, they provide an opportunity for divisive forces to target the constitutionally-protected rights of minority groups and pose a serious threat to the free practice and promotion of religious beliefs.

Furthermore, the laws fail to account for the agency of converts and treat them instead as passive recipients of external (and seemingly unwanted) pressures from ‘predatory’ convertors. They tend to treat all religious conversions as suspect and liable to investigation and prosecution.

As Cardinal Telesphore Toppo of Jharkahnd commented, ‘We are a free people with a free will, and a free conscience, and free intelligence. No one can force anyone to convert.’

Anti-conversion laws in India affect the safety of local Christians and other religious minorities wherever they occur.

CTA: To learn more about anti-conversion laws in India and their spread to South Asia and beyond, read Tehmina Arora’s full 2016 report for the Lausanne Movement here.

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